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Watching alone

How the internet killed pop culture

Artillery Row

Last week, with the BBC centenary celebrations approaching, The One Show announced its Top 20 BBC Shows of all time. The results are heavy on the nostalgia, with Only Fools and Horses taking the crown and only five — possibly six, if Line of Duty gets recommissioned — still in production.

An escape room in times of turmoil

Of those five, three began (or are based on shows from) more than 50 years ago, while another is set in the 1950s. It’s possible the results say more about The One Show audience than the programmes themselves, but it was hardly a glowing endorsement for the current state of pop culture.

A few days earlier, the Atlantic ran a piece worrying that the fact old music is now outselling new music — catalogue songs representing 70 per cent of the American music market — means it can be hard for emerging artists to break through. 

This isn’t merely a case of oldies buying back their adolescence in 180 gram slabs of vinyl. The numbers are even more dire when it comes to streaming. The 200 most popular new songs account for less than five per cent of total streams — a miserable figure that has halved in the past three years. We have arrived at a bizarre moment where pop music, that most ephemeral and zeitgeisty of art forms, has become convinced its own best days are behind it.

On the big screen, nostalgia has been propping up tentpoles for the past decade. Most of our cinematic superheroes first fought crime at least half a century ago, while other franchises hurriedly refresh and reboot all those things you used to love™. 

Take a look at the current Warner Bros slate. This year we can expect three hours more of Batman at his most dour, followed by Batman as you remember him from 1989, alongside films based on Barbie and Hot Wheels. Other studios are prepping productions based on Masters of the Universe, Polly Pocket, novelty toy the Magic 8 Ball and a host of other American properties of yesteryear.

Looking around, the reasons why this might be a moment for nostalgia aren’t exactly mysterious. We like familiar things, especially when life is changing fast. The past six years have seen rupture after rupture. Trump. Brexit. Pandemic. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the good ol’ days of the global financial crisis. I’m not immune myself and have written about using the television of the past as an escape room in times of turmoil.

But perhaps what is being longed for isn’t what we used to watch or listen to, but how. The internet has been the greatest disruption of our century (yes, as transformative as the printing press, etcetera etcetera) and it may well be for the citizens of the next century to assess the progress it has brought or the damage it has wrought.

The impact of the internet on pop culture has been argued about for at least two decades. For every accusation that the web would kill mass culture, there are pieces like this 2017 defence from the New York Times, hoping that the innovation made possible by new technology would see envelope-pushers rewarded as punters finally started paying for digital goods. Five years on, its optimism seems quite adorable.

New shows arrive in a rapid churn of Twitter hot takes but seem tired and irrelevant two weeks on

Maybe the reason The Beatles are, as of last year, the best-selling artists of all time — alongside the Eagles, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd and Barbra Streisand — isn’t because their music was better (although some studies beg to differ), but because they are artists that everybody knows. In other words, the nostalgia is for connection, for a shared experience, something we can all talk about, rather than the things themselves.

More than simple brand recognition, these are iconic figures from the before times — when pop culture was more centralised, filtered through layers of gatekeeping critics and publishers and distributors and broadcasters before reaching the general public. Lost days when we were all watching or listening to the same thing. (Go through the top 50 best-selling recording artists of all time and you’ll hit #31 before you stumble on anyone whose debut record is post-iPhone.)

The Web 2.0 is built on sharing, but in connecting us with people who share our interests all over the world, it threatens to break culture into decentralised tribes whose obsessions appear meaningless — or even hateful — to those on the outside. In our streaming age, talking about television with friends is less like shared gossip and more like hearing long and tedious anecdotes about people you don’t know but would probably really like

Even mass cultural events such as Squid Game, which was allegedly watched by 111 million people (for at least two minutes each) struggle to leave a lasting imprint. Part of the issue seems to be the current binge and purge approach to cultural consumption. New shows arrive in a rapid churn of Twitter hot takes but seem tired and irrelevant two weeks on.

Where are the next icons coming from? As pop culture splinters, even great success is no guarantee of breaking through into public consciousness, as the Atlantic piece notes: “even new songs that become bona fide hits can pass unnoticed by much of the population.” Imminent obscurity is a fate that likely awaits many of the TikTok stars turning out low budget versions of the kind of chuckle-worthy skits that once stuffed mainstream sketch comedy programs. 

Maybe you’re part of the 24% of Britons familiar with the world’s number one YouTuber MrBeast (or part of the 10% that likes him), but those numbers place his fame beneath that of Janine Duvitski, a comic actor known for her supporting role in One Foot In The Grave. You can have millions of viewers across the globe, be making big dollars, and still have less real world fame in the UK than a sitcom star from 1973.

Wouldn’t it be great if pop culture was again a shared part of our material lives?

Is it in the nature of digital culture to be ephemeral? Or does it matter less because of the way we experience it? Do human interactions still matter more when they aren’t mediated by technology? 

If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s that virtual communication is deeply unsatisfying. Nobody on their death bed wishes they were on a Zoom call instead of holding the hand of a loved one. The web has allowed us to build fantastic virtual communities around niche interests – communities that often feel immense and occasionally spill over (sometimes dangerously) into the real world. But maybe those communities don’t feel like they matter as much as we think they should.

As limited as legacy media was, it guaranteed a certain level of shared experience with those around us. How do we build that sense of shared experience when our peers are scattered about the globe? Maybe, at heart, this is an argument for the importance of broadcasters such as the BBC, who still have the potential to reach entire nations at once — as the figures for Line of Duty prove. 

Without wanting to lean into the parochial, wouldn’t it be great if pop culture was again a shared part of our material lives? Something we could discuss with the faces we see every day on buses, in shops, at work – something as real and as communal as the weather?

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